NASA dims lights for Constellation program (photos)
The Ares rocket, Orion spacecraft, and Altair lunar lander didn't have the right stuff after all. President Obama's new budget proposal puts an end to years of work and spending.
Orion in 2006
Not so long ago, NASA was gearing up for a next phase of space exploration that would eventually bring astronauts back to the moon, and beyond that to Mars. In this photo from August 2006, officials of the space agency could smile as they showed off a scale model of the Orion spacecraft, announcing that it would be built by aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin. An element of the Constellation program, Orion was intended to carry four crew members on lunar missions and six on junkets to and from the International Space Station.
Along with Orion, the Constellation program included the Altair lunar lander (seen here in an artist's rendering) and the Ares family of rockets.
"The program was planning to use an approach similar to Apollo to return astronauts to the moon some 50 years after that program's triumphs," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement Monday (PDF). "The Augustine Commission observed that this path was not sustainable, and the president agrees. They found (with) Constellation, key milestones were slipping and that the program would not get us back to the moon in any reasonable time or within any affordable cost."
Two rockets were envisioned for Constellation: the Ares I (left), which would lift the Orion crew vehicle into space, and the Ares V, which would haul large-scale hardware.
"The Augustine Commission estimated that the heavy lift rocket for getting to the moon would not be available until 2028 or 2030, and they even found 'there are insufficient funds to develop the lunar lander and lunar surface systems until well into the 2030s, if ever,'" Bolden said. "And as we focused so much of our effort and funding on just getting to the moon, we were neglecting investments in the key technologies that would be required to go beyond."
...and followed through with a 6-minute suborbital test flight (including 2 minutes of powered flight) that carried the booster stage to a splashdown about 150 miles away. Some 700 sensors on the 327-foot-tall, 1.8-million-pound rocket provided a wealth of tracking and performance data as the Ares I-X reached nearly 3Gs and Mach 4.76 at the behest of 2.6 million pounds of thrust.
NASA offered this additional description: "Four first-stage, solid-fuel booster segments are derived from the Space Shuttle Program. A simulated fifth booster segment contains Atlas-V-based avionics, and the rocket's roll control system comes from the Peacekeeper missile. The launch abort system, simulated crew and service modules, upper stage, and various connecting structures all are original."
Last summer, CNET's Daniel Terdiman got a close look at a fully assembled Ares rocket at a Promontory, Utah, facility of ATK, the primary rocket contractor for the Constellation program. The assemblage, said Kevin Rees, director of test services for ATK, contained "the world's biggest solid rocket motor."
Had NASA been able to follow through with Constellation development to the point of actual missions into space, this is a view that space station residents might have been able to enjoy: the Ares V departure stage carrying the Altair lander and docking with the Orion crew vehicle.
This is a "ground test article" version of Orion at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in July 2009. It was designed to be a "production pathfinder" to validate production processes and tools for the actual flight vehicle. Ground tests were to include static vibration, acoustics, and water landing loads.
Ahead of the October 2009 flight test of the Ares I-X rocket, NASA gathered the various systems at the Kennedy Space Center's vehicle assembly building. At the time of the launch, NASA could boast of quick work in bringing the test rocket to the launch pad only four years or so after it was a concept. "This is unprecedented in NASA history, for a rocket of this size," said Jon Cowart, a deputy mission managers overseeing the assembly and launch Ares I-X. "It's incredible."